Oral Histories

Jon Iwata

Interview Segments on Topic: Transition to Corporate World

Jon Iwata Biography

Jon Iwata leads IBM's marketing, communications and citizenship organization. This global team is responsible for market insights, the marketing of IBM’s portfolio of products and services, communications and corporate affairs, and stewardship of the IBM brand, recognized as one of the most valuable in the world. Jon and his team have led the development of IBM’s “Smarter Planet” strategy, which describes the company’s view of the next era of information technology and its impact on business and society.

Jon is a member of the IBM Operating Team, responsible for day-to-day marketplace execution, and the IBM Strategy Team, which focuses on long-term issues and opportunities. He is vice chairman of the IBM International Foundation. Jon joined the communications function of IBM in 1984 at the company’s Almaden Research Center in Silicon Valley. In 1989, he joined IBM corporate headquarters in Armonk, New York. He was appointed vice president of Corporate Communications in 1995 and senior vice president, Communications, in 2002. He assumed his current role on July 1, 2008.

Jon is a member of the Technology Committee of the Museum of Modern Art and is a trustee of the Arthur W. Page Society. From 2006-2007, he served as chairman of The Seminar, a professional group consisting of chief communications officers. He holds a B.A. from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University.

Jon is co-inventor of a U.S. patent for advanced semiconductor lithography technology.


Interviewer: It’s September 15th, and we’re in Chicago. I’m sitting with Jon Iwata from IBM. I want to thank you for spending some time with us this afternoon. I know that you’ve been busy with the Page Society conference. Why don’t we get started and we’ll talk about your early career. You graduated from San Jose State with a communications degree. Could you just talk about your early career and how everything progressed to get you to where you are today?

Iwata: Yes. Well, let’s see. I was fourteen when Watergate happened and like generations of young idealistic people, we found out about Watergate, and when we found out about Watergate through the work of, among others, Woodward and Bernstein, who were romanticized as ‘uncoverers of truth.’ So when you’re fourteen and trying to figure out what you want to do, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and I was interested in Liberal Arts, writing, and what not, I thought this is a very noble thing to do for a living as a profession: investigative journalism. I was all fired up and off I went, and I ended up at San Jose State in the Journalism program. My intent was to become a reporter—an investigative reporter.

A couple of things happened. One is I was late to that game because a lot of people were turned on to journalism suddenly and the market was being flooded with hopeful reporters, but that was one consideration. I took as an elective class a PR course taught by Dennis Wilcox, who is also a Page Society member. To be honest, my view of the PR people was these are my future opponents. I didn’t understand what this field was and I thought I would sit through this one elective course with my arms folded and with a mixture of disdain and pity for these people. But it was 1982 at this point and I was assigned through the semester to follow and report on the Tylenol case, which was unfolding at that very time. What I was astonished to find, as was everybody, it’s so famous now, was the decision made by J&J to voluntarily withdraw Tylenol. And of course they weren’t compelled to do so; they weren’t required to do so, and I was so impressed by that, that I looked more deeply into this thing called public relations to find out if you could get a major in it and you could get a job in it. So all of these things came together in 1982, I guess, and it caused me to change my major from Editorial Journalism to Public Relations, because of these things. So that’s what I got my degree in. It’s actually in Public Relations from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State.

I took an internship as required by Wilcox at IBM and I had no idea that they needed communications people in corporations and it turns out that IBM has hundreds and hundreds of them, even more so from then. Based on that internship at IBM, I was offered a job in a position full-time and I started off technically as an intern in 1983 and I became a regular employee of the company in 1984.